President Barack Obama took the annual State of the Union address Wednesday to recalibrate his objectives, based on changes in U.S. political circumstances, but also to make it clear to Congress and the public that he intends to continue to lead the country in pursuit of the goals he stated as a candidate.
The traditional speech is two things.
First, it gives the president the opportunity to assess the situation of the country -- the state of the union -- and to indicate what his goals and intentions are for the coming year, in this case a mid-term election year.
Second, it gives the country -- or, at least, those who take the trouble to watch -- a chance to see the country's rulers, who in principle represent them, in staged action, the rough equivalent of parents' day at school.
Tone is important in these affairs. Mr. Obama has, obviously, lost a little of the hallowed glow with which he emerged from the 2008 elections. There have been, as there would be, some electoral losses, although his party retains a 59-41 margin in the Senate and a much larger one in the House. Some of his enterprises have not prospered, although health care reform is still somewhat further along than the comparable effort by previous Democratic president Bill Clinton was at this stage of the game.
Mr. Obama's "save the economy from recession" effort is still getting mixed reviews. It is -- and will remain -- arguable whether the expensive and unpopular bank bailout saved America from economic destruction.
Mr. Obama's address to Congress and the nation was helped enormously again by his ability to poke fun at himself, including on the health care effort. The fact that he is able to laugh at himself makes his sharp thrusts at the Republicans -- signaling the implications of their mindless obstructionism -- and at the Supreme Court justices, sitting right in front of him -- for the decision they handed down on campaign finance that eviscerated years of effort to bring money from corporations, banks and foreigners under control -- all the more telling in their impact.
Mr. Obama's primary goal in this address was to stress to the American people that he does understand what is bothering them most now: the dreadful impact on families and individuals of the recession that is wracking the country, with 10 percent unemployment, continuing foreclosures of their residences and the "heads I lose, tails you win" trap of the only apparent government remedy to the problem on the boards being to spend more money, running up budget deficits and the national debt even more alarmingly.
Somehow, when Mr. Obama tells the public that he and his wife get what is going on, one believes him, considering his background. It isn't just that he visits and sprinkles in references to the Elyria, Ohio's of this world; there is a sense that he has lived enough to understand the situation of the people who are being brutalized by the recession while the Wall Street types wallow in money.
The measures that Mr. Obama outlined to attack the jobs dilemma made sense, and were, as a package, moderate (as opposed to "socialist") and pro-business to the point of being respectably conservative in their thrust. Take $30 billion back from the banks, but give it to lenders to help out small businesses was one example.
He also warmed the cockles of the hearts of legislators owned by the oil companies by saying something nice about offshore drilling. In doing so he takes his liberal, environmentalist constituency for granted, knowing they have no other place to go with the Republican Party in troglodyte mode.
Apart from taking a swing at Iran and reiterating his intention not to cut the U.S. military budget, Mr. Obama for the most part stayed away from international affairs matters during the talk, reflecting correctly the current overwhelming preoccupation of the American public with the lamentable state of the economy.
Mr. Obama remains a very effective speaker. His threat to the Republicans -- that if they block everything he tries to do, they will be held responsible by the American people for the nongovernance that approach amounts to -- was right on the mark. Now let's see how much was talk and how much was intention to act.